And So We Drive

The New BMW i4 Looks like a Car, and That Bodes Well for the Future of Electric Cars

Autoblog yesterday posted some spy shots of the upcoming i4, and I’m thrilled it looks like a car.

The writing is on the wall for the internal combustion engine. Powertrain development is now overwhelmingly trending electric, and every day there’s another article about a major manufacturer leaning into electrification and away from ICE.

The problem, until now, has been that as a consumer, it isn’t easy to choose an electric car. Even if we leave aside all the practicalities and logistics of charging, electric cars just haven’t been good cars, and so you have to really value electric cars for the sake of electric cars to justify choosing one.

If the future of transportation is electric, we’re going to need electric cars that are appealing as cars, both in their driving dynamics and in their styling. Between where we are now, with primarily internal combustion engines, and our electric future, we need to pass through some intermediate stage in which choosing between a conventional powertrain and an electric one is similar to choosing between a gasoline and a diesel engine today. Deciding between gas and diesel is an important decision, and has implications for the character, cost, and driving dynamics of the car you’re buying, but fundamentally whichever option you choose, you’re still buying a car.

That the i4 looks like any other BMW is precisely what we need, and is a welcome change from the i3. I understand that the i3 is targeting a niche for whom it’s appealing that the car takes a strong function-over-form, Star Wars cargo droid aesthetic, but that’s always going to be a niche. What we need for electric vehicles to tip into the mainstream is for buyers to be able to evaluate them as cars, against other cars, and choose the powertrain that’s best for them – just as they do with gasoline versus diesel engines now.

Making and selling electric cars that looked and drove like good cars was the unappreciated differentiator that set Tesla apart in its early years, starting with the Model S. At the time, that was the intangible that analysts and the industry weren’t discussing. But that time has passed, and the large manufacturers are finally starting to respond (starting with the Jaguar I-PACE, I think). That’s why Tesla has been going through a rocky patch. There are now other electric cars for it to compete with, as opposed to just ICE cars and electric boxes.

Maybe I’m optimistic here, but I think once we fully settle into an era of “electric cars as cars” that there will be a resurgence of good drivers’ cars. And given how good some electric cars are to drive, I’m excited about it.

At least if the Porsche Taycan is any indication.

Notes

  1. This whole post, of course, is framed in the near- to mid- future. There may come a day when we've all given up on cars as we know them now, and the future truly is boxes with no personality, except for the odd car collector. But I don't think that future is coming any time soon, and if it ever comes, I think this transition period is still between where we are now and that point.
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by Tyler Carbone